Stories from the First World War: The Costello Family

Stories from the First World War: The Costello Family

During my time as intern at Te Papa, I have been working to try to discover the identities of the sitters who appear in a collection of photographic portraits held in the museum’s collection.  The portraits depict soldiers who had their photographs taken at the studio of Berry & Co. in Wellington before they embarked for service in the First World War.

Read more about the Berry & Co. collection

While it has been difficult to identify many of the soldiers, with only the photograph and a hand-written family name on the top of each negative as a starting point for research, some of my searching has proved successful.  You can read the fascinating story of Sergeant Major Vandersluysthe sad story of two brother from the Jessen family and more First World War Stories in my previous blog posts.

Black and white glass negative (Costello);1914-1920; Berry & Co; Wellington
Black and white glass negative (Costello);1914-1920; Berry & Co; Wellington

Black and white photograph, gelatin silver print, Evans Bay; unknown date; Chapman-Talyor, J. W.; 145(height) x 200 (length)

In 1898, William Costello married Phoebe Olive Wilton, the youngest of the 15 children of Elijah and Priscilla Wilton.  Relatives of the Wilton family were responsible for the donation of Wilton’s Bush to the city of Wellington.

William and Phoebe had ten children: Irene (b. 1899), Eric Wilton (b. 1902), Lionel Lenton (b. 1903), Kenneth Wilton (b. 1904), Frederick William (b. 1906), Mildred Olive Wilton (b. 1909), Eileen Joyce (b. 1911), Nola Kathleen (b. 1913), Esma Wilton (b. 1914), and Herbert Lawrence Lenton (b. 1917).  They lived in Douro Avenue in Newtown, where William provided ‘next-of-kin’ details for his younger brothers who went to serve in The Great War.  Sadly, Irene was stillborn, Lionel died aged 1, and Esma was killed aged 23 in the Ratana rail crash in 1938.  Phoebe died in September 1940, and husband William passed away in Wanganui in 1943.  They are buried in the same (unmarked) grave in Karori Cemetery.

William’s brother Frederick Lawrence Costello was born in 1875.  However when he enlisted for the New Zealand Rifle Brigade in 1915, he used a false birth date of 23rd July 1880 to ensure he was not too old to be sent away on active service.  He had previously been living in Te Kuiti in the Waikato region, working as a tailor for a Mr. Hackett.  He embarked from Wellington in February 1916 as a Rifleman with the 4th Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade on board the Mokoia.  After training in the Suez he went to France in April 1916 where he served on the front for the entirety of the war.  At the end of the conflict he sailed from Liverpool on the Northumberland, arriving home to be officially discharged on the 28th March 1919. Frederick Costello died at Napier on the 4th May 1942.

It is Frederick’s uniform which has provided significant clues as to the identification of the subjects in the Costello photograph.  The collar and hat badges of the lion holding a pennant are consistent with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, but the confirming item is the black triangle on the cap. Early on the New Zealand Rifle Brigade used these in various shapes but only the 4th Battalion wore a triangle with the point downwards.

The sitter on the left of the photograph is the youngest of the brothers, Herbert Lenton Costello.  He was born in 1882, and was self-employed as a bushman before enlisting in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  He became a Private in the Canterbury Infantry Regiment and went to train at Trentham Camp in December 1915.  He was punished in March 1916 for overstaying his leave.  However, he seems not to have learnt his lesson – after travelling to France on the SS Caledonia with the 1st Company of the 2nd Battalion, he was punished again at Rouen for overstaying leave, and later at Marseilles for being absent without leave.  Each time he was deducted eight days pay.

Herbert was wounded on the 12th October 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele (the Third Battle of Ypres), suffering the hit of a machine-gun bullet to his left forearm.  He was invalided to the New Zealand General Hospital No. 1 for six days, and then sent to Hornchurch Hospital on the 17th October.  The Medical Board at Hornchurch decided that he would be unfit for active service for six months, and for home service for at least three months, and so he was sent home.  Sailing on the Maunganui on the 18th March 1918, he was discharged from the NZEF on the 26th July of the same year.  Herbert died inWellington in January 1950.

Read more Berry Boys blog posts


  1. What happened to the photgraph of the 3 brothers that was originally attached to the family story??

    1. Hi Bill

      I’ll look into this and will ask to get the image back onto the blog.

      Kirstie Ross.

  2. Guess you are aware of a family book for the WILTON family? I have one here at home to help me with research.. must check it out later today for these names!

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